A Microsoft Office executive laughed off a new Google Gmail feature that lets users sort e-mail messages by date, claiming that Google should just hit the “like” button on Microsoft’s Facebook page instead of copying Office functionality.
Google Sept. 29 introduced a toggle switch that lets its 180 million users choose to receive e-mail in chronological order instead of the default conversation view the Webmail service uses.
Conversation view is Google’s term for threaded messages, which group messages between sender and recipient in a mini cluster.
The implementation of the toggle switch was a grudging nod to Microsoft Outlook, which uses the more traditional method of viewing messages by date. Outlook, used by more than 500 million people, is the world’s leading on-premise e-mail client.
Google engineer Dong Chen said Google’s reason for offering a conversation view toggle switch is to allow users to access e-mail in more “familiar ways,” explaining that “e-mail traditionalists like many former Outlook users think conversation just complicates something that has worked for years.”
Traditionalists isn’t a misnomer. Sorting e-mail by date is something Outlook has done since it ran on the old DOS platform, said Andrew Kisslo, a senior product manager for Microsoft Office.
“For years now, Google has been saying ‘conversation view’ (threaded) was the best way to read e-mail,” Kisslo wrote in a blog post. “But apparently users petitioned for this feature so I can only imagine the water cooler chat at the GooglePlex in Mountain View.”
In a comment on eWEEK.com’s Google Watch blog, Kisslo likened failing to give users a way to personally sort e-mail to having a car without adjustable seats and steering wheel.
Google’s move is certainly symptomatic of a company whose ethos is to start with a few features and build to user wishes as time goes on.
In conversations with eWEEK, Google’s enterprise group has repeatedly criticized Microsoft Office for having too many features that people don’t need or use. Kisslo responded to that criticism in his post:
“Supporting more users means supporting more requirements,” Kisslo wrote. “That leads to complexity of features which the company appears to openly dismiss. They almost revel in uniformity and simplicity, almost to a fault.”
That is, Google, whose Google Apps suite is little more than three years old, tries to apply the same simplicity aesthetics it applies in its search engine to its collaboration software.
Kisslo’s point is that the company ultimately sacrifices user choice by telling people what Google thinks they should want in products, and then bows to users’ wishes by providing functionality users have become accustomed to from legacy products such as Office.
He added that this approach — reluctantly copying Microsoft features years after people ask for them — is not good for gaining lots of users and is likely why Gartner estimates Gmail’s market share is at only 1 percent.
Kisslo also said that perhaps Google should just hit the like button on the Office Facebook page and be on its way.
As a final dagger, Kisslo noted that Outlook 2010/Outlook Web Access offers conversation view as one of 12 different views for users.
Of course, Microsoft’s major move to the cloud with Business Productivity Online Suite happened a couple years after Google Apps appeared. This begs the question: Just who is aping whom?